An encouraging start for Ducks
It took about a quarter, but the reloaded Oregon Ducks looked the part of Pac-12 championship contender — and potentially bigger things — Saturday in a season-opening football win over Stanford at an empty Autzen Stadium in Eugene.
Tyler Shough threw for 227 yards and a touchdown and ran for 85 yards and a TD in his first start at quarterback as the 12th-ranked Ducks took command after halftime in a 35-14 win over the Cardinal.
The performance featured the expected from running back CJ Verdell, promising debuts for Shough and a new offensive line, a big night for defensive end-turned tight end D.J. Johnson and plenty of speed and depth from a defense that made things difficult for Stanford's inexperienced quarterbacks.
"Winning is hard, and to be able to just bring it all together like they did in the second half, just it's a great start. It's a great start to the year," Oregon coach Marion Cristobal said. "And the best part about it, there's so many things to get better at. You can coach it hard. You can improve. You can bring your hardest and toughest coaching at this team knowing that they're going to take it and find a way to get better."
With the new offensive line gaining confidence as the game progressed, the Ducks rushed for 269 yards and four touchdowns. Verdell, contained in the first half, finished with 105 yards on 20 carries and Travis Dye ran for 85 yards on 11 carries, all in the second half.
The Ducks fell behind 7-0 in the first quarter, but scored touchdowns on three long drives spanning the second and third quarters to take command.
Verdell was the tough-running back the Ducks expected. But the first game under offensive-coordinator Joe Moorhead has to have Oregon followers excited.
Shough took every snap and after a few early jitters looked comfortable in his first start. The 6-5 redshirt sophomore from Chandler, Arizona finished 17 for 26 for 227 yards with a touchdown pass and one interception.
"There's some throws in the beginning I'd like to have back. That's just part of going into the first game, just trying to get the jitters out a little bit," Shough said. "But it honestly felt good getting into a groove there later."
Shough threw deep more than Justin Herbert was usually allowed to as new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead tried to stress the Cardinal defense vertically and sideline to sideline. Shough's reads on option plays improved as the game progressed, allowing himself, Verdell, and tight end Johnson to find big plays on the edge.
"They got good players," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "We believe we got speed in our secondary and we got beat three times by the deep ball. You get beat three times on the deep ball, it's tough to come back."
Shough also benefitted several spectacular catches from his receivers, including a one-handed grab from Mycah Pittman for a 40-yard gain to start the first of Oregon's five TD drives.
"(The receivers) play with a ton of heart," Shough said. "I always told them I'm going to give them the chance (to make a play)."
None of the top three tight ends on the depth chart was able to play, but former defensive end Johnson had a significant impact both as a receiver — five catches for 55 yards and a touchdown — and as a blocker.
"That's a 270-pound jumbo athlete and he's fast and he has good hands and he's a good blocker and he's conscientious and he's tough," Cristobal said. "He's got all the makings of a great one."
After struggling early, Oregon's new offensive line asserted itself as the Ducks finished with a 496-413 advantage in total yards. Oregon averaged 6.7 yards per rush, though Shough's 7.7 average contributed to that.
West Linn native Alex Forsyth started at center, flanked by TJ Bass and Ryan Walk at guards and George Moore and Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu at tackles.
Cristobal said the early struggles running the ball were caused mostly by breakdowns resulting in missed adjustments to pick up blitzes and stunts. Once the those communication challenges were cleaned up, the Ducks moved the ball consistently.
"Man those guys are great. They did an unbelievable job tonight," Verdell said of the offensive line.
Shaw, a coach known for sticking with his ground game, credited Oregon for sticking with its talented backs.
"Their coaching staff wants to run the football and they stuck with it," Shaw said. "We did a really good job in the first half and the second half they found a couple of creases, they cracked a couple of runs, they got multiple good running backs, and they cracked them. When you give up a few explosive plays and you don't make enough on your side, the scored gets lopsided."
On defense, Oregon played a lot of guys and was effective in the red zone. Stanford only punted twice, but the Cardinal settled for field-goal attempts four times — and Jet Toner missed them all (from 48, 40, 35 and 27 yards).
Stanford did test Oregon with its running game early, but this game was mostly a bad-luck experience for the Cardinal.
Stanford found out Saturday that starting quarterback Davis Mills and starting receiver Connor Wedington could not play because of positive COVID-19 tests. That meant junior Jack West stepped into the starting QB role, with freshman Tanner McKee playing several series. Combined, they were an efficient 16 of 26 for 216 yards and no interceptions — but no touchdowns, despite moving the ball between the 20s.
There were solid performances on every level of Oregon's defense, but one player who stood out was true freshman linebacker Noah Sewell. The brother of last season's Outland Trophy winner, Penei Sewell was made four solo tackles including a tackle for loss and showed why he was such a coveted recruit.
"A future star," Ducks linebacker Isaac Slade-Matautia said, explaining that Sewell understood and executed the defense at a high level in his first college game. "He's big. He's physical. He really did impress me tonight."
The Cardinal briefly brought back memories of their improbable comeback at Autzen in 2018. A 73-yard run by Nathaniel Peat set up Austin Jones' second TD run to make it a two-touchdown game with 7:39 remaining. On Oregon's next play from scrimmage, Stanford safety Jonathan McGill had a Shough pass in his hands, but dropped what should have been an interception.
From there, the Ducks moved the ball 73 yards over eight plays to secure the victory with a Cyrus Habibi-Likio 4-yard touchdown run.
Oregon's running game was contained, other than Shough runs, in the first half. But on the opening drive of the third quarter the Ducks ran the ball seven times including a nice 14-yard Dye touchdown scamper.
The Ducks were up 14-7 at halftime thanks to drives of 87 and 96 yards.
Oregon's first scoring drive came on its second possession and was jump started by the spectacular one-handed catch by Mycah Pittman for 44 yards on the first play.
Verdell picked up 23 yards on a wheel route on a third-and-6 and scored from 10-yards out on an option pitch from Shough.
Oregon's go-ahead drive in the second quarter included a 21-yard run by Shough and a 38-yard pass to Johnny Johnson II to the Stanford 2. That touchdown was a pass from Shough to tight end Johnson.
Shough's first half numbers were 9 of 12 for 142 yards with a TD and a pick. His receivers were a big part of that as Pittman and Jaylon Redd (twice) made difficult catches.
Stanford took a 7-0 lead on a Jones 4-yard run to cap an 80-yard march with 3:25 left in the first quarter.
The Cardinal dominated time of possession early and would have led if not for two missed field goals.
The Cardinal forced Shough to make plays by bottling up the Ducks running game in the first half. Verdell averaged 2.7 yards on 12 first-half carries and Habibi-Likio fumbled his only carry to end a promising drive.
That changed in the second half.
Oregon will work to build on this promising start when the Ducks travel to Pullman to play Washington State on Nov. 14. The Cougars opened with a 38-28 win on Saturday at Oregon State.
Game time has not been announced.
OREGON 35, STANFORD 14
Stanford 7 0 0 7—14
Oregon 7 7 14 7—35
Sta — Austin Jones 4 run (Jet Toner kick), 3:25
Ore — CJ Verdell 10 run (Camdan Lewis kick), 0:54
Ore — DJ Johnson 5 pass from Tyler Shough (Lewis kick), 1:05
Ore — Travis Dye 14 run (Lewis kick), 11:13
Ore — Tyler Shough 9 run (Lewis kick), 0:53
Sta — Jones 2 run (Toner kick) 7:39
Ore — Cyrus Habibi-Likio 4 run (Lewis kick) 3:37
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